Henry James and the Fiction of Solitude

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Library of Congress

Today is the birthday of Henry James, the expatriate American novelist best known for his books about the gaps and clashes between European and American culture. James, who was born in 1843, is difficult to read; especially as he got older, he was prone to lengthy, complicated sentences that were inaccessible in spite of—or perhaps because of—their being so carefully crafted.

But he’s worth it: The other hallmark of his work is a deep attention to his characters’ psychology. Here’s how a review of his work published in our January 1882 issue summed up his style:

What is all this but saying that in the process of Mr. James’s art the suggestion always seems to come from within, and to work outward? We recognize the people to whom he introduces us, not by any external signs, but by the private information which we have regarding their souls.

That review centered on The Portrait of a Lady, which had been serialized in The Atlantic beginning in November 1880 (the first installment is here). By that time, James already had a long relationship with The Atlantic, which had published one of his earliest short stories, “The Story of a Year,” when he was only 21. That March 1865 story seems to foreshadow some of the plot elements in Portrait. Though the novel is set in continental Europe and the story during the American Civil War, both narratives involve an innocent young woman, a conflict between love and duty, and an ultimate choice that seems to go against both love and logic. Both stories end with a closing door—literal and metaphorical, as if shutting the reader out of the characters’ inner lives.

That’s a harsh sensation. Not only is the reality of James’s fiction immersive, it’s a very self-contained world. As the 1882 Atlantic review noted:

The characters, the situations, the incidents, are all true to the law of their own being, but that law runs parallel with the law which governs life, instead of being identical with it. … So complete is the isolation of the book that the characters acquire a strange access of reality when they talk about each other.

Consider this passage from the first installment of The Portrait of a Lady, where a character talks about meeting Isabel Archer, the title character:

“She didn’t know she was bored, but when I told her, she seemed very grateful for the hint. You may say I shouldn’t have told her—I should have let her alone. There is a good deal in that; but I acted conscientiously; I thought she was meant for something better. … If you want to know, I thought she would do me credit. I like to be well thought of, and for a woman of my age there’s no more becoming ornament than an attractive niece.”

Speeches like this one, introspective and semi-confessional, seem to take over the narrator’s role as they describe their own personalities. Self-consciously, they predict how their listeners will react, and try to justify themselves—even as they admit details that reflect upon them poorly. It’s as if their inner realities, even the things they don’t quite admit to themselves, have been exposed to everyone around them—and they know it.

That’s what struck me the most when I studied The Portrait of a Lady in a class taught by Nicholas Dames, who coincidentally has an essay in our most recent issue, “The New Fiction of Solitude.”

Dames writes of a recent trend in novel writing: Instead of immersing the reader in a cast of realistic characters, thus encouraging empathy, its authors are devoted to chronicling the thoughts of a single narrator, “a ruminative first-person voice given to self-expression more than to distinct characterization.” In some ways, these narrators sound like the self-revealing characters of Portrait. They engage, Dames writes, in “relentlessly self-conscious self-exposure”; they are “prone to obsessions and to a performative brand of revelation perhaps better called testimony than confession.”

Yet where James’s characters are constantly aware of their social position—always wondering what other people think of them, always bringing the thoughts and feelings and voices of their listeners into their own—the narrators of solitude are “aloof from social demands and roles.” They speak “from a voice that distrusts, or disbelieves in, the possibility of communication; an exhibition of a perspective that is true by virtue of being not knowable by anyone else.” That’s James at another extreme: precisely the kind of voice that’s ultimately denied to Isabel Archer, who becomes stifled by the relentless judgements of the society she inhabits even as she declares, “I don’t know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me.”

What seems to trouble James’s self-revealing, self-conscious characters is the struggle for accurate self-expression—the possibility that among all their observers, none might ever understand precisely what they mean to say. Dames—who suggested in his comments on my term paper that the Jamesian mode of self-exposure sounded a lot like posts on Facebook—describes the fiction of solitude as a kind of haven in a world that’s overwhelmed with the thoughts of others, where awareness of an audience is constantly with us, where it feels “we’re … at risk of losing an awareness of our identities as protean and separate.” When we read the voice of a narrator who insists so completely on her individuality,

The experience offers a reminder of what the world looks like without a constant awareness of the perspectives of others, whether consoling or besieging. Such reading makes possible a recovery of solitude.

But then, what of the empathy missing in the fiction of solitude? My colleague Megan found an answer in social media posts:

They turn formerly silent thoughts into readable text. They turn “characters” into “people.” The tweet may be about the weather; the insta may depict dinner; regardless, each status update and post and snap is an invitation not just to judgment, but to understanding. Each one challenges its viewer or reader or listener to see the person on the other end as much more than they might seem.

To the extent that we share ourselves, we resemble James’s characters more than ever. We are more exposed yet more isolated in front of an audience, and more likely to be misunderstood. Even so, we still snap and tweet and talk and write, almost compulsively, and the voice that distrusts communication writes a novel anyway. It’s somehow reassuring that for all the risks and anxieties that come with expression, we still attempt to speak ourselves. We attempt to be understood.